Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Vegetarian's Dilemma

There has not been a single decision I have made in my life that I feel better about than becoming vegetarian. And yet I have not been able to enjoy my decision. I have to contend with how I am perceived - I don't want to appear too radical or intense and I certainly don't want to appear smug or superior. I also have not been able to rest with my own apparent hypocrisy. As I have noted before, it is inconsistent for me to abstain from meat for moral reasons while still eating eggs and dairy products and wearing leather.

The decision to become vegetarian was not an easy one, although it was always the obvious choice. It was just easier to ignore the pressing guilt. I know that I am not alone - in my conversations about vegetarianisms with others I invariably hear "Good for you! I could never do that." Meat is just too delicious and the source is too easy to ignore. That's a real shame, because I have become convinced that meat is an obvious and objective cruelty. This is rapidly becoming a very important cause for me.

Eating meat in itself is not cruel. Although I will never eat meat again, I acknowledge that the consumption of animal flesh is not inherently wrong. However, in our modern society, 99% of all meat (this includes beef, pork and poultry) is produced on factory farms. These are absolutely cruel places and there is no moral justification I can think of that would mitigate the consumption of these creatures. I have to imagine that people who eat meat do not know how cruel and inhumane (an odd word) factory farms actually are. I have to imagine that if people knew, then they would stop eating meat instantly. If I thought that people knew what the farms were like and continued to eat meat, continued to support this viciously cruel industry without so much as a blink, then I would be forced to dismiss their "morality" with contempt.

I realize that this makes me an asshole. I realize that this means I think fully educated carnivores are bad people. I am truly sorry for that. Please believe me when I say that although I see a vegetarian diet as morally superior in every aspect, there is no sense of competition for status with carnivores. I would like nothing more than to be a friend to all humans, but I simply cannot. This is too big of a problem for me to ignore, too big for any of us to ignore. The welfare of animals is more important to me than the possible hurt feelings of humans.

This is a link to a film titled Meet your Meat. It is vicious and hard to watch. It isn't slaughter - it is deliberate, intentional and unnecessary cruelty toward animals that are obviously suffering. If you are unable to watch (as I am), if you are unwilling to see what goes into the making of your food because you know what you will see then you should follow the obvious moral path and change your eating habits.

As I said at the top, the implications of all of this are not easy, even for me. It was easy to give up meat and leather, but not so easy to give up dairy - I am still working through the logistics of that. It is also difficult for me, as a dog owner. I have no illusions about the source of the food and treats we provide our pets. I honestly don't know where this leaves me. Although the cruelty of the food source is undeniable, there are no health issues associated with a vegetarian diet for humans - in all the research I have read, a vegetarian diet is healthier. But dogs are carnivores. Meat is essential to their diet. I can't deny them what they require, but is the relative health of my pampered pets worth the life and happiness that other animals are forced to give up? I don't have an answer right now.

I have just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer's fantastic book Eating Animals. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in the subject. I feel so strongly about it, in fact, that I am willing to purchase a copy and send it to you if you are unable to procure it for yourself. I promise that it is less abrasive than I have been in this post. And I really am sorry for the terse tone. I don't want to come off as a morally superior asshole, but I am motivated by the plight of billions of beings who are suffering for the sake of industry. I am certainly not blameless, I am not proud of myself, but I strongly believe that eating meat is morally indefensible. I would like nothing more than for all of my readers to become vegetarians.

I welcome all comments, as well as ideas for dog food.


Ed said...

“As I said at the top, the implications of all of this are not easy, even for me. It was easy to give up meat and leather, but not so easy to give up dairy - I am still working through the logistics of that.”

I eat eggs and dairy and don’t punish myself or feel terribly guilty about it either. I do drink soy (or rice or coconut or almond milk depending on what is cheapest week to week) instead of milk to reduce my dairy intake, but I eat plenty of cheese, ice cream and butter. Heck even Peter Singer considers himself a flexible vegan “I am largely vegan but I’m a flexible vegan. I don’t go to the supermarket and buy non-vegan stuff for myself. But when I’m traveling or going to other people’s places I will be quite happy to eat vegetarian rather than vegan.” http://motherjones.com/politics/2006/05/chew-right-thing

I own leather and have no plans to throw it out as it would be wasteful to do so. In fact I think it would be a immoral and self serving to do. It makes more sense to keep wearing the few belts I have owned for 10+ years than to get rid of them and waste resources buying new cloth ones instead.

“But dogs are carnivores. Meat is essential to their diet. I can't deny them what they require, but is the relative health of my pampered pets worth the life and happiness that other animals are forced to give up?”

Well you could (although I don’t recommend it) try feeding your dog a vegetarian diet as peta suggests.

I tend to agree with you and the following link though, that argues a dog was built for meat and survives best on it.

I don’t think you ought to be overly concerned with feeding your dog meat, but if it really is a huge concern then you could buy more “humane” meat (free range, grass fed etc) and prepare it yourself or skip getting a dog altogether. :(

--continued in response 2--

Ed said...

This and the vegan issue to me are expressions of the same concern- how to best survive and promote life for ourselves and others. Because I don't believe in an objective unchanging God given morality (I'm a Buddhist atheist), what I am left with is not so much a question of "right" or "wrong" choices, but rather skillful and unskillful ones. This means I have to guard against self justification and denial, but it also frees me from the question of guilt while still giving me a framework with which to base my choices on. Eating meat, being a vegetarian and being a vegan, all are part of a spectrum and there is nothing inherently more moral, pure or right about any of them as a choice to support life. Because they are all on a spectrum however we can still evaluate their relative effectiveness at reducing suffering, it just isn't something to feel superior or more moral about though.

There is a limit to what I am willing to sacrifice and how much inconvenience I am willing to take on in the pursuit of alleviating climate change, pollution, world poverty and famine, not eating animal products to avoid suffering and so on. If there wasn't a limit then one would be forced into the position of the radical Jain who ritually starves to death because to do otherwise is to kill and inflict suffering on another being (life requires consumption of life). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santhara/2/hi/south_asia/5390162.stm

For me it is enough to look into where my food comes from and make choices that minimize my impact (bearing in mind the understanding that some suffering no matter how I choose, is unavoidable).

Where exactly this will lead I can't tell, but looking at eggs for instance I see a progression- First I did not care to investigate how they were produced. Then upon learning a little about production I became uncomfortable and after awhile started buying the more expensive "cage free/ free range" eggs..Then looking further into production this was not enough either and I sought out eggs from producers whose methods and values closer matched mine. Places like the farmer's market and WSM are where I buy these products now.

This is still not perfect of course because what happens to the male chickens? If the producer is not breeding their own chickens who are they buying them from? How are those chickens treated? Often male chicks are unwanted and culled in a gruesome manner. Knowing this I am willing to modify my habits and consumption to a certain degree to do less harm, but how far will I go? Right now I am happy with where I am on the spectrum and the fact that I am heading in an ever more responsible direction, without having to blame or berate myself for falling short of perfection.

emma wallace said...

There is also the argument for the humane farms - supporting people who ethically (both for the animals and for the environment) produce meat is enabling them to succeed. If all the educated carnivores went vegetarian, then the only people eating meat would be those who couldn't care less where their meat came from.

There are people who have to eat meat for their health and I, while pregnant, have gone from eating meat around once a week to about five times a week since I need so much more iron and protein. That we are able to spend a little more and buy organic, free range, grassfed, (in everything including dairy and eggs) seems to be a more proactive way of promoting the humane treatment of animals rather than just abstaining from eating them altogether.